IF THE NOVELIST Deji Olukotun had been working in the 1950s, he would have been writing radio plays — the kind of high-energy sci-fi dramas that used a wide variety of ingenious sound effects, including static and high-frequency interference, to contact alien worlds. Today these futuristic plays are artifacts, which reflect above all the conditions produced by the space race, probably more than they reflect the realities of scientific research. But for Olukotun, these sci-fi radio plays are also souvenirs, reminding us that the future is a place we could go back to. With his new novel, Nigerians in Space, Olukotun reminds us of some of the most exciting pan-Africanist and anti-colonial futures of the twentieth century. Olukotun crafts a knowing, Afrofuturist pastiche of traditional pulp cliché — reproducing the cocksure attitude, over-the-top descriptions, and authoritative tone of the radio play, while inventing an alternate-history for a covert African space program launched in the 1960s and coming into its own at the cusp of the twenty-first century.
“Father and son walked along the grass until they reached an enormous manhole cover in the middle of a field. Wale squatted down and tried to lift it off, gritting his teeth. 'Come, Dayo, give me a hand.' Together they dragged the lid off with a hollow scraping sound, and the scent of old moss drifted from the hole. 'This is where they kept the mercury. There were huge pools of it. The idea was to use the mercury as a giant focal lens to observe the stars, since science hadn’t discovered how to manufacture a lens of that size. Mercury reacts like a mirror when it’s still, and there were few vibrations because the scientists buried it underground. At the time it was a significant advance for the Observatory. But when they built the Liesbeeck Parkway and the N2, the vibrations from the traffic made the mirrors unworkable. Can you imagine looking into a pool of mercury? Gauging the stars in a pool of quicksilver like an alchemist? It would be like floating in space.'”
- Nigerians in Space (2014)
Megan Eardley: The premise of your debut novel Nigerians in Space involves a mannered lunar geologist who steals the moon rocks from the NASA lab where he works, and from there, things get more complicated. The space program recedes in the haze of secret cabals, disinformation, and more immediate terrestrial concerns of security, migration, and labor. As it eliminates the distinction between deep space and the environment back on earth, Nigerians in Space imagines how the world could be in the near future. And since the novel’s launch, Nigerians in Space has continued to expand as a trans-medial project. In late May, you released a soundtrack to accompany readers on their journey through the novel. Some of the songs dramatize the smuggling storyline, or interpret your characters’ personalities and emotional development. You’ve also included music that you listened to as you wrote the novel in Cape Town.
Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to do that soundtrack, and how music, or soundscaping more generally, relates to the process of creating space within the novel? I’m thinking of the otherwordly geographies that you describe in Cape Town, and the relationship between sensuous terrains, the objects you collect, and narratives that animate them.
Deji Olukotun: Because I grew up in the U.S., much of my experience of Nigeria was through music and storytelling. I remember hearing an interview with George Lucas, who described how he listened to all these old classics while writing the screenplay for American Graffiti, and how he was able to put that music into the film. As writers, we don’t enjoy that ability, and sometimes stories with too many references to music are sort of annoying, because you can’t hear the tune. I jumped at the chance to work DJ Dopplerr when he offered to put something together. (I also talked with some musicians from Antibalas to compose a sci-fi Afrobeat song, but we couldn’t make it happen.) I was lucky to live in the neighborhood of Obz in Cape Town, where fantastic musicians would come together almost every night, and I caught a lot of other acts around South Africa. I was honored to share it my imagined soundtrack when Largehearted Boy offered to publish it. I also worked with the Brooklyn-based DJ Slim Hug to play the tunes from the Largehearted Boy compilation and other music inspired by the book.
ME: The moon rocks that NASA collected during the Apollo 11 mission are also inscribed with a mysterious nonscientific power. Before the American astronauts completed the first moonwalk, NASA ordered the crew of Apollo 11 to collect a contingency sample. The idea was to have something to take home to study, even if they were unable to complete the rest of the mission. The collection was taken, but improperly sealed. Since the moon rocks were contaminated with ordinary earth dust when the space shuttle reentered the atmosphere, they've become a souvenir. According to officials, they're just kept to remind scientists that they have been to the moon, but they’re held in a classified facility.
How did you find out about this sample, and why does it interest you as a writer?
DO: I grew up with scientists from Africa, China, and India dropping into our house for dinner. Science is in many ways a great, universal exploration. So it was not a stretch for me to have a Nigerian scientist who was highly technical as a main protagonist. Many of scientists like Wale are family friends.
Most of my research on lunar geology was conducted before a great deal of this information had migrated online. (Today it would be a lot easier.) The section about the Contingency Sample in particular was conducted in the library stacks at the University of Cape Town, where I ran across some wonderful texts that described how scientists examine moon rocks. Contamination was a major theme in these books because the samples need to be pristine to have scientific value, and the Contingency Sample was a very real thing.
ME: Conspiracy and conspiracy theory weigh heavily in Nigerians in Space — especially as a major source of tension between Wale and his son, who has grown up with a father who has failed as a scientist, and degrades himself in front of immigration officials to stay in the relative comfort and safety of South Africa. Talking about the conspiracy helps Wale create a coherent narrative and make space for grief as well as horror/anger to be expressed, but as the son sees it, paranoia consumes his father. Could you talk a little bit about the way you have encountered conspiracy? As a human rights lawyer, as a storyteller, as someone who grew up in the US, where conspiracy theories are popular explanations for unpopular politics and media coverage.
DO: Everyone loves a conspiracy because it can provide answers to situations that are opaque. Unable to understand what’s going on beneath the surface, we ascribe complex explanations for how things come about. I’ve heard amazing, fantastical conspiracies in Haiti, South Africa, Nigeria, the U.S., and Europe—basically anywhere where people don’t have the power to make decisions about their own lives. As a human rights lawyer, my favorite work has been supporting people who are seeking to empower their own communities. At PEN, I’ve worked with writers who are trying to fight for free expression in their own countries, basically to open up space for critical thinking and creativity. Sometimes leaders are doing terrible things, and they should be held to account for it. But there’s no way to know if people can’t write freely about them.
“He explained that the Ibeji organization continued to strike fear into his heart, but that he didn’t have proof that it existed, except for the small wooden carving that he pulled from his sack. The carving was evidence of their heinous crimes, he said, and they would surely kill him for the doll if they found him. He handed the carving to Mrs. Craxton but she merely crossed herself against its devilry and told him that she would recommend his refugee status be continued for two more years. ”
- Nigerians in Space
ME: In Nigerians in Space, you use Yoruba ibeji dolls to bind the conspiracy to a physical object, even though you seem to be self-consciously writing against spiritualist clichés. You describe the dolls a few times, and each time at least one character is uncomfortable with the reminder of a “traditional” culture. Sometimes that is Wale, the Nigerian scientist who is proud of “his” culture. Can you talk about this challenge: the question of owning or representing a culture that you are also imagining, especially in this scene where Wale’s rights in South Africa will only be recognized if he presents himself “correctly” to the immigration authority?
DO: This is not uniquely an African phenomenon. When I’ve simply moved to a new community—even across Brooklyn to a new neighborhood, I’m presented with a choice about my identity. Should I say that I live in Park Slope, when I lived most of my time in the city on the border between Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Lefferts Gardens? Each of these neighborhoods has a different cultural meaning in New York.
It’s the same with the ibeji dolls. What I try to show with Wale, the Nigerian scientist in the book, is that he is torn between his devotion to scientific rigor and his cultural upbringing in Nigeria. When it suits him, he wraps himself in his Yoruba values, but when that’s not convenient or expedient, he delves into the scientific method. There’s a struggle within him that he can’t always control, either, as proverbs crop up in the midst of stressful situations. As the book unravels, he becomes so riven between these extremes that he adopts a new God entirely from ancient Mesopotamia.
“If one’s private room gives no pleasure,” his father liked to say while pinning strings to his cork board, “the town seems like a wilderness.” The room began to suffocate him so he went for a stroll, seeking the wild. His father would probably be drinking with Okeke by now and watching a soccer match, but Dayo had no money to spend. A stroll was free, and in Obz at night it could be adventurous. There was tension in the burglar bars that belied the stillness, as if the entire neighborhood thought it would be rampaged by hordes of thieves and Tsotsis at any moment, and the slinking cats on the parapets would do nothing but bear witness. The wild soon came. Heeling past the strident top-40 music of the Stones bar, he felt someone watching him. When he looked across the street, though, the only person there was Bernard, the Congolese bouncer at Runnings, who waved and smiled beneath his puffy afro. He decided to stop into the Armchair Theatre, a live music club with torn leather furniture and candle-topped bottles, and ordered a beer from the bar, putting the drink on a tab that he declined to look at. Kesivan Naidoo was on drums with his quartet, Lee Thompson on cornet. Dayo realized his mistake as soon as he sat down at the bar.
-Nigerians in Space
ME: Security and surveillance also feature in the novel, and as we pivot from the 1990s to the present, we’re reminded us of freedoms we’ve lost, on a global scale. Could you talk about that?
DO: At the time I was writing the book, I was more concerned about writing a good thriller, and security and surveillance are almost essential elements in your typical page-turner. But at PEN these issues have become a very real part of my work. We’ve been working on supporting reader privacy for over a decade and we’re very worried about how surveillance affects creativity, both in repressive societies and in more open societies like the U.S. But I can’t say they were the main themes of Nigerians in Space. I’m looking to take this on more in the sequel, which I’m hoping to write soon.
ME: Let's talk about the space heroes. The program director remains the novel’s most visionary character, who seems to know exactly how the dream of national space exploration can be reanimated, and organizes the best and the brightest for nation-building before their knowledge is sacrificed to personal achievement. But he is also mysterious and absent for much of the novel. Other heroes emerge — the daughter of a Pan-African freedom fighter living in France, a young man trying to help a friend who finds himself poaching abalone in South Africa (which are creepy, well-chosen terrestrial alien creatures). They ask new questions concerning the future of scientific discovery in Africa, including workers’ rights, environmental protection, beauty, health, security, and surveillance. Do you think the new Nigerian Space Program will be able to address some of these questions? What do you think is the value of a national space program?
DO: Bello’s dream is to harness technology to create a better society, and I won’t spoil whether or not that works out. He is a brilliant speaker—a combination of a traditional Yoruba praise singer (a Muslim one) and a modern public relations specialist.
The truth is that when I started writing the book I made up the space program completely and I just wanted to see how that would play out. Amazingly, it turned out to be very real. I think the space program is in reality less ambitious than Bello’s vision. Nigeria isn’t planning to put a man on the moon right now, as far as I know, just to have some good satellite communications and use imaging to do a good population census. There are much larger problems related to governance and infrastructure in the country right now. A government investigation found that as much as $20 billion went missing from the treasury last year alone. When the numbers came out, the President fired the investigator. There are a lot of principled, thoughtful leaders in Nigeria who might be able to do something positive with the satellites, but it’s going to be hard for them to get things done without compromising their values. That’s politics.
ME: What do you want or believe could come out of your project? What do you want to challenge, threaten, change?
DO: I wanted to write a story where Africans have agency and intellect. Not just intuition, which is charming and colonial, but to act as protagonists making choices for themselves in the information age of the 21st century. And I wanted to look at how porous borders can be today, that to be a Nigerian or a Zimbabwean means you can live anywhere, whether to seek an opportunity or because you had to flee a terrible situation. But above all, I want the reader to have fun.